Foreign students labeled 'threats'

Audrey Hudson (Contact)
Monday, June 23, 2008

A group of foreign oceanography graduate students got a scare when they recently applied to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for access to U.S. ports where their research ships would be moored.

The TSA denied their request and labeled them "security threats."

"They don't know what this meant, or what happens if they leave the country and try to get back in or renew their visa. This really alarmed them," said James Yoder, vice president for academic programs for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), one of two centers providing the students' oceanography program. "We have not been reassured that our students won't face penalties down the road with TSA."

TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency will allow the students access to the ships and secure dock areas with an escort and is reworking how it words its denial-of-access letters. The TSA has only two designations for such requests: "approved" and "security threat."

Rep. Brad Miller, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight, has asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to rescind such TSA designations.

The foreign oceanography students, enrolled in a program run by WHOI and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applied for Transportation Worker Identification Credentials (TWIC) while holding student visas.

Beginning next year, TWIC cards will be required to enter secure areas of U.S. ports. The students will need access to secure port areas to load equipment and gear, Mr. Yoder said.

One student received a letter from a TSA official that seemed to go beyond simply denying the request because the student visas are not on the list of eligible candidates for the TWIC program.

"You pose or are suspected of posing a security threat," John Busch, TSA deputy director for security threat assessment operations, said in the letter dated May 1.

"I have personally reviewed the initial determination of threat assessment, your reply, accompanying information and all other information and materials available to TSA," Mr. Busch said.
Based on this review, I have determined that you pose a security threat and you do not meet the eligibility requirements to hold a TWIC. Specifically, your Visa status does not meet the criteria under the permissible Visa categories to hold a TWIC," he said.

The students feared that their visas are in jeopardy and that they might not be allowed to re-enter the country, Mr. Yoder said, adding that obtaining the TWIC cards is now only a secondary concern.

"We're trying to get reassurance this security threat designation is removed from their records and is not in any Homeland Security Department computer," he said.

Mr. White said that "being denied a TWIC because of visa status has no negative impact" on a foreigner's status and added that the agency's denial-of-access letter was worded too strongly.

"The bottom line is these were poorly written letters, and we are revamping it to more accurately reflect the individual's situation," Mr. White said.

"Because of their visa status, [the students] are not eligible to receive TWIC cards, but they are very much eligible to work in those areas if they are escorted or other conditions," he said.

Jay Grant, chairman of the U.S. Port Security Council, said TSA has the prerogative to determine who can and cannot gain access to sensitive areas, whether it's the docks, cargo area or administration buildings.

"The whole idea is to feel good about who is on the ports," Mr. Grant said.

"It's not like they are picking on somebody. They use a propriety method and put scenarios together," Mr. Grant said. "They have to be able to verify information, and that is sometimes a challenge with foreign nationals."

The priority is not just protecting ports from land, but also guarding what happens under water.

"Obviously it's harder to see under water and easier to access ports, so we're doing a lot of different things with sonar to protect the shorelines with swimmer detection, to make sure something is not getting attached to ship's hulls," Mr. Grant said.

The FBI issued an advisory in August to the scuba industry warning of suspicious or "nefarious" activity, and were warned to watch for odd inquires or requests for speciality training.

Industry officials were warned to beware of "requests for advanced diver training by applicants from countries where diving is not a common recreational activity."

"Similarly, training sponsored by groups or agencies such as religious organizations, cults, associations, or charitable agencies not normally associated with diving," the FBI advisory said.

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